Last year, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gave Gopinath Munde the responsibility of spearheading the Lok Sabha election campaign in the state, his first decision was to strike at the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in its bastion, western Maharashtra.
An arch-rival of NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Munde knew exactly where to hit the NCP hard. Whether he has succeeded in his attempts will be answered in May, but the NCP has definitely taken a beating. Three of its seats in western Maharashtra are already a matter of concern after smaller parties such as the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana (SSS) and the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha (RSP) joined hands with the saffron combine.
Sadabhau Khot and Raju Shetti of SSS have made things difficult for the ruling parties in Madha and Hatkanangale. And with Mahadev Jankar of RSP fielded against Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule in Baramati, this election will definitely be a challenge for the NCP.
There is also deep unrest in western Maharashtra against the NCP, which came out in the open after 23 villages in Baramati put up black flags on their houses in protest on Pawar's birthday in December last year.
External forces aside, the NCP seems to be grappling with its own leaders in other constituencies. Senior leader Sanjay Khodke has refused to work for the party's official candidate, Navneet Kaur Rana, in Amravati, while Arun Gajarathi and Ravindra Patil are upset over the candidature to 'outsider' Manish Jain in Raver.
Laxman Jagtap, who was finalised from Maval, announced his inability to fight on the party ticket saying that the NCP failed to take a decision on regularising illegal constructions in Pimpri-Chinchwad.
Although the party has been in troubled waters in a few parts of the state, it has improved slightly in the past six months. Recent surveys and studies have projected the NCP falling a little short of its existing tally — which is better than the projections made six months ago.
"Earlier surveys showed that the NCP would win only five to six seats. The findings were taken very seriously by the party leadership. Brainstorming sessions were held and areas with any room to improve were identified," said a senior party leader.
“According to the latest studies, the ruling parties are still short of a few seats, as compared to their current tally. But there are numerous factors that can influence the prospects of the ruling parties in the next few days,” said political analyst Suhas Palshikar.
Palshikar said both the Congress and the NCP are struggling with the anti-incumbency factor and studies showed that people are unhappy with the government. However, the NCP has a strong organisational setup that no other political party in the state can boast of.
More than 40 Assembly constituencies in western Maharashtra and parts of Marathwada are the party’s stronghold. It has a fixed vote bank in the sugarcane, milk production and horticulture sector.
A strong network of cooperative banks has helped strengthen financial ties of rural Maharashtra, and also established the party leadership.
Hit by scams
In the past two years, the party’s image has taken a serious beating. Deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar had resigned from his post for over two months after his name came up in the irrigation scam. Another minister, Sunil Tatkare, was also alleged to be part of the multi-crore scam.
Another major blow was the alleged involvement of senior leader Chhagan Bhujbal in the Maharashtra Sadan scam. The FSI allotted to the contractor of the Sadan in Delhi was reportedly disproportionate. Political pundits feel that if the Opposition raises these issues, the NCP could pay the price in the LS elections.
All in the family
Detractors of the party blame the NCP for dynasty politics. Apart from the three Pawars — Sharad, Ajit and Supriya — many senior ministers have family members enjoying key positions in the party.
For instance, excise minister Ganesh Naik’s elder son Sanjeev is the party MP from Thane, while younger son Sandeep is an MLA in the lower house. Bhujbal’s nephew Sanjeev is the sitting MP from Nashik, while son Pankaj is a member in the Assembly. JUMPING SHIP? Pawar’s alleged meeting with Narendra Modi created flutters in the political arena and confusion among both party workers and voters.
Will the party leadership, which is known to flip-flop, still be part of the UPA? This is a question that the NCP has refrained from answering.
Party leaders did not hesitate in giving Modi a clean chit in the post-Godhra riots, saying that the Supreme Court had acquitted him. This move, however, has created confusion among the party cadre, who believe "anything can happen after the elections".